The road to Mt Augustus from Meekatharra is unsealed. In the rear view mirror I could see billowing clouds of dust enveloping every crevice of the unloved camp chairs and brand new ‘pub bike’ we bought for this trip, strapped mercilessly uncovered to the trailer. It was Wednesday, Day 4. Around 75km from Mt Augustus we saw a sign for annual Landor Race Meeting at the East Gascoyne Race Club, kicking off Friday. Count us in! Darned if we were going to miss another compelling sounding local event.
But first Mt Augustus.
I kind of expected Mt Augustus to look like Uluru, but twice as big at eight kilometres long, and older, clocking in at 1650 million birthdays. Well, it has a lot more trees and what-not on it, so it is nothing like it really. The rock is so big you cannot actually get a photo of it in entirety. I even drove around the short ends of it, and, nope. So here’s a partial image.
Mt Augustus is known as Burringurrah by the local Aboriginal Wadjari people. The main dreaming story associated with it tells of Burringurrah, a lad not enjoying his initiation into manhood instead electing to take off, breaking tribal law. Punishment came in the form of a tribesman’s spear through his leg and a finishing off by the women wielding fighting sticks. If you look at the mountain along the long side, you can see his prostrate body and the broken-off spear. I can think of a few men that have avoided transitioning to adulthood, and who appear to have been lucky they weren’t under Wadjari law.
As a working station covering 1,250,000 acres, running over 100 windmills and bores, and a hard to count number of cattle, Mt Augustus offers travellers a campground oasis of lawns and sprinklers, 100% groceries in the fridge (yep, even the potato chips) and a bar specifically prohibiting ‘dickheads’ and open when deemed appropriate by the extremely genial and unintentionally humorous tourist park managers. If you are prone to dickheadery, avoid.
There are numerous short walks or drives to lookouts from the base of the Mount, doable for small people, and featuring magical rock engravings you can walk right up to. There are so few places in the world you can stand right in front of 30000+ human handiwork without a security rope and cctv. I love Oz.
The pinnacle activity for most is to climb the 12km return, 700m ascent Beedoboondu Summit Trail. The general guide says to expect a 6-8 hours climb, and that it boasts some savage radiant heat, that along with the terrain, tests the unwary. The day before we arrived, a woman had to be transported (a four stage several hour process) to Royal Perth and the bar manager said earnestly while pouring a chardy with ice, “I had to grab some people that looked like you to carry her down from the top”. We did a quick calculation and retired with a view to kick our walk off at 4.30am.
When the sun warmed our duvet it became apparent the alarm had been set for a time other than the appointed (4.30pm- not looking at anyone in particular!), and we were an hour behind schedule. Undeterred, we stormed up that hill like the undead from seven hells was upon us, and cracked a sub four hour return. I think the compelling feature for Waz was that someone told him you could get Telstra coverage on the cairn at the top.
With days north of 35 degrees in September, Goolinee (Cattle Pool) on the Lyons River offers surprisingly chilly respite in the noon day heat.
But this morning we were not dilly-dallying. We got back and packed without pause; we had a country race, of which we knew little, to attend.
There is some kind of M thing going on in Wildflower Country; Moora, Mingenew, Morawa, Mullewa, Mt Magnet, Mt Augustus, all wildflower hotspots. The exceptions are Cue, Coorow, Carnamah, and a host of others I’ve left out because they don’t suit my theme. It is striking how inventive and creative these small towns are, from murals to museums, and thrilling sounding events that we would miss like The Inseminator’s B and S Ball and Ute Muster, The Menzies Rodeo and Ute Muster (‘Have yourself a bucking good time’), and Mt Magnet’s Astro Rocks Festival.
Meanwhile, at Coalseam Conservation Park, a foggy morning greeted us, which you don’t get much of in Perth, and as some of you know, I do love a tree in mist.
I had done a little more research by this stage in snatches of mobile coverage and had a solid plan in mind that would not involve driving back down roads we had already covered. Part of Warren’s no work zen outlook was to stop the car and turn around as many times as I requested, without the veins in his temple exploding, but I didn’t want to fatigue that new muscle.
Our goal was Mt Augustus, the kind of place you choose to go because it is not on the way to anywhere and far from everywhere. You go there to see the ‘World’s Biggest Rock’ – yes, more than twice Uluru – to view carpets of wildflowers, intriguing geology, and enjoy some working cattle station hospitality.
Mt Magnet is en route to Mt Augustus, and although small, jam packed with history and pride in the success of past and present residents, all gathered in one sizeable place called the Mining and Pastoral Museum, within the visitor centre.
I have to say at this point that all small towns have their version of this. Country visitor centres are worth visiting simply to meet the warm and enthusiastic volunteers ready to spill the beans on what’s hot, recent celebrity sightings, movie filming featuring all the locals, and recommend where we could get a good cuppa. For us, it was the swimming wall of fame in the museum and one of Mt Magnet’s accomplished sons.
Coorow is another example of community pride and spirit. The local community owns and farms land for community benefit. Coorow Farm is home to the first homestead built in the area by William and Sarah Long, who raised a family of seven without, one would assume, any medical attention or intervention. A self-drive 6km wildflower trail offers point of interest, with walks of 250m or 1.25km, which apparently was 1km too far for the occupants of the other four vehicles.
By 4pm, Waz called stumps and we looked for a roadside stop. If you are not all over it, Wikicamps is a goldmine for finding paid and free camping and the voluntary commentary spares no detail. If there is rubbish, mosquitoes, flies, bees, generators going all night, crap hosts, or it looks like a scene from Cocoon*, TomTrukka or Ben1983 leaves no mystery. There is also an element of ‘this is too good to put on Wikicamps’, where you don’t want a good thing ruined by great unwashed tourers, so you and the other 100 people who know about it remain shtum.
A spot in the Gascoyne riverbed is such a place. Astoundingly, Waz did not create a massive fire, which is why he camps, but instead Waz’s Outback Kitchen Australia (WOKA) turned out free range chicken enveloped in similarly liberated prosciutto, atop a gathering of rocket and micro herbs accompanied by seared sweet potato. Just because we camp doesn’t mean it’s all two minute noodles and anti-bacterial wipes. I’ll go into why this whole camping thing is even a concept for one most comfortable in order and freshness in another post. Yes, city princesses and princes of Bel Air, you too can do this.
*Dang. There I go alienating my Millennial audience.
Our first day was pretty short by usual standards. It was simply enough to be on the road, and having not made it to the supermarket we only had the remains from our home fridge with us; a jar of red cabbage sauerkraut, leftover jalapenos, two lemons, one orange devoid of skin (denuded for Waz’s gin), and half a packet of bacon. Like a vision, the welcoming Watheroo Station Tavern loomed in the dusk, offering free camping, hot showers and home cooked food! Bonus offer – the Watheroo National Park was just down the road. Yes, yes, and heck, yes.
Which brings me to my latest project: I’m going to visit every National Park in Australia. I thought it would be a great way to spend the four months. Then I discovered there were ‘over 500’. The husband of a friend said “But that will take ten years!”, which is probably on the money, but in my defence, I do my best work when there is a list to attack, and I do not like list items mocking me for too long.
So to Watheroo National Park. An amazing array of wildflowers (in season), echidnas and rich wildlife, areas of water and walking tracks, it covers over 44,000 hectares and is home to Jingemia Cave, and the biggest mosquitoes I’ve had to take an entire palm to.
Sporting around 50 bites despite industrial spray, I was ready for the Watheroo Station Tavern dining room for some excellent offerings from the kitchen ladies. Lamb shanks, fish in butter and caper sauce, salad and vege. Washed down with an $18 bottle of wine. A bargain night for $58. It’s a must stay!
The next morning I had the wildflower trail maps open, with an eye out for the ‘extremely rare’ yet seemingly common wreath flower. Any local info/visitor centre is happy to hand draw specifics on a map : “They are near this cross road, before you get to the big tree, under the fenceline, and behind the bush…”. The rest of the morning was a a zig zag around taking in wildflower hot spots: Carnamah, Morewa, Three Springs, Mingenew, and winding up at Coalseam Conservation Park (surely this counts as a National Park?!).
While the East Coast may have the Big Pineapple, Western Australia’s wildflowers are the biggest collection on Earth – with over 12,000 species, 60% of which are found nowhere else. If it appeals, make a date to self-drive the many trails from July to November.
By this stage Waz had that strained look. He had gone above and beyond with the driving back down roads he had already been, and blood sugar was plummeting alongside his sense of humour. Picking up the pace we set up camp at Coalseam Miners Camp. The result of a spirited exchange in a radiant 36 degrees abuzz with clouds of flies about whether site nine was better than four, and where north was.
Next: Mt Augustus and dust. So. Much. Dust.